Old and New Stories from Appalachia

By Tina L. Hanlon, 2004

The article originally appeared in the magazine The Five Owls, vol. XVII, issue III, 2004.
Edited by Mark I. West. Issue on Growing up in the New South

The mountainous region of Southern Appalachia has been home to an especially rich tradition of storytelling for hundreds of years. Modern writers use their gift for storytelling to pass on the history and folklore of traditional mountain life, as well as exploring contemporary life in rural homes and towns. Like the rest of the nation, recent authors of Appalachia have recognized the diversity of ethnic groups and social classes that settled among these beautiful mountains stretching from southern Ohio to northern Georgia and Alabama.

In the decades since Bill and Vera Cleaver wrote Where the Lilies Bloom (Harper Trophy, 1969), a wide variety of young voices have told their stories on the pages of Appalachian fiction. In this beloved Appalachian novel for children, adapted in a successful 1974 movie, fourteen-year-old Mary Call Luther describes her family’s struggle for survival in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains. Left in charge of her siblings and determined to keep living together on the land, she hides their father’s death from the neighbors. It is difficult to keep the idealistic promises she made to her dying father when confronted with a landlord’s greed and a harsh winter, but she uses her mother’s old “wildcrafting” book to learn how to collect medicinal plants that the children sell for much-needed income.Missing May cover

A more recent story narrated by a twelve-year-old orphan appears in Missing May (Dell, 1992), an emotional short novel by West Virginia native Cynthia Rylant. Summer and her elderly uncle, who took her in at age six, search for a way to go on living after the sudden death of his beloved wife. They need to recapture May’s exceptional gift for overcoming poverty and hardship with love and faith. Love for a misused beagle creates a moral dilemma for the eleven-year-old narrator of Shiloh (Yearling, 1991). In this first book in Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s popular trilogy based on a real West Virginia dog, Marty cares for Shiloh in secret, reluctant to return him to his abusive but lawful owner.

If you prefer to spend time with a wacky, amusing West Virginia personality, read Cheryl Ware’s Venola Mae series, composed of humorous journal entries and sketches by a lively middle school girl. In Venola in Love (Orchard, 2000), e-mail messages give Venola a new outlet for commenting on her busy life at home and school. All these contemporary stories show that it’s not true, as some descriptions of the region still claim, that Appalachian culture existed only in the past, or survives only among pockets of isolated people entrenched in old folkways.

In The Fledglings by Sandra Markle (Boyds Mill Press, 1992), a troubled girl who runs away from Atlanta discovers her Native American grandfather living near Cherokee, North Carolina, and helps him protect predatory birds from poachers. Other books recount the earlier history of Cherokee people. In Soft Rain: A Story of the Cherokee Trail of Tears by Cornelia Cornelissen (Bantam, 1998), a nine-year-old girl and her family endure hardships during the forced removal of their people from North Carolina to Oklahoma in the 1830s.

The conflicting feelings of Virginia families evicted by the government in the 1930s, when the Shenandoah National Park was created, are depicted in the novel Grandpa’s Mountain by Carolyn Reeder (Avon, 1991) and the picture book When the Whippoorwill Calls by Candice F. Ransom and Kimberly Bulken Root (Tambourine, 1993). Two other beautifully written picture books show contemporary children learning about the past. In From Miss Ida’s Porch by Sandra Belton and Floyd Cooper (Four Winds, 1993), a girl on a porch in Beckley, West Virginia hears old folks tell about the struggles and triumphs of African-American history. Who Came Down that Road? (Orchard, 1992) is one of many poetic picture book texts by Kentucky author George Ella Lyon, with paintings by Peter Catalanotto. It shows how a child’s questions lead his mother to muse on a country road’s transformation through eons of natural and human history.

Gloria Houston’s own family heritage inspires her historical fiction set in the North Carolina mountains. In Bright Freedom’s Song: A Story of the Underground Railroad (Harcourt Brace, 1998), a girl gradually learns about and assists the dangerous work undertaken by her family and a courageous former slave, helping slaves escape to the North. Houston also reveals the little-known history of another form of slavery, as Bright Cameron’s father was one of many immigrants cruelly oppressed by indentured servitude after being forced off a farm in Scotland. Houston’s most popular picture book,My Great-Aunt Arizona cover My Great-Aunt Arizona (HarperCollins, 1992, illustrated by Susan Condie Lamb) tells the uplifting life story of a devoted woman who taught in a one-room schoolhouse for over fifty years.

Laurence Yep wove his mother’s family history and Chinese legends into The Star Fisher and its sequel Dream Soul (HarperCollins, 1991 and 2000). After her family moves to Parkersburg, West Virginia to open a laundry, a teenage girl in the 1920s learns to cope with racial prejudice and her old-fashioned Chinese parents while enjoying new friends and American customs. The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl by Virginia Hamilton (Harper & Row, 1998) contains a most fascinating blend of history and folklore. Characters from African-American folklore, including John Henry and John de Conquer, accompany an African god child, Pretty Pearl, when she joins African-Americans hiding from oppression in the Georgia mountains after the Civil War. Helped by Cherokees also hiding in the South, they travel old warrior trails north to find peace and prosperity on the other side of the Ohio River.

Of course, folktales from the heart of Appalachian storytelling traditions have been retold in many other books for children. Richard Chase’s The Jack Tales (1943) and Grandfather Tales (1948) are still among the most popular folktale collections in America. More recent picture books, films, and audio and video recordings retell folktales like these that were brought to Appalachia by European settlers, as well as Native American and African-American tales of the region. You can read my favorite folktale, “Mutsmag,” about a resourceful girl who defeats a giant, in Grandfather Tales or in the web site AppLit, where a wonderful recent adaptation by R. Rex Stephenson is illustrated by Virginia school children. AppLit: Resources for Readers and Teachers of Appalachian Literature for Children (http://www.AppLit.org) contains background and study guides on all kinds of Appalachian literature.

The many sensitive portrayals of Appalachian life and history in these stories work against old stereotypes of backward hillbillies living in rural poverty. The distinctive landscapes and language of Appalachia are unique, but the strong values celebrated in Appalachian literature for children are the same ideals shared by communities everywhere—love of family, community, the land and freedom.

Belle Prater's Boy by Ruth White

This issue's cover story, “Growing up in the New South” by Mark I. West, discusses Southern children’s books recommended by various scholars. Lucy Rollin recommended Appalachia: The Voices of Sleeping Birds by Cynthia Rylant and Barry Moser. Frieda Bostian recommended Come Sing, Jimmy Jo (dealing with country music) by Katherine Paterson. Ruth White’s Belle Prater’s Boy (Dell Yearling, 1996), the book recommended by Tina L. Hanlon from Ferrum College in Virginia, is also set in a small town during the 1950s:

This is a featured youth book in the Roanoke Valley Reads program in Fall 2013.

Belle Prater's Boy coverAt the beginning of Belle Prater’s Boy, Woodrow Prater’s situation is a little like Huckleberry Finn’s at the beginning of Mark Twain’s classic novel. His mother is gone and his father is an alcoholic who lives on a mountain, so Woodrow is left with more prosperous relatives in town, as Huck is taken in by the Widow Douglas. Woodrow is shrewd and he can tell some wild stories like Huck, but he is a mid-twentieth-century sixth grader in a heart-warming, realistic Appalachian novel, not a wanderer seeking freedom. Unlike Huck, Woodrow enjoys the material comforts his grandparents provide and he gets along well in school. His next-door cousin, Gypsy, narrates this story about the year after her Aunt Belle caused a sensation in their southwestern Virginia coal town by suddenly “vanishing into thin air.”

Gypsy is not so comfortable with her stepfather, a newspaper editor who tries to win her affection, or her mother’s preoccupation with turning her into a lady and grooming the long hair that makes Gypsy feel trapped like Rapunzel. This novel avoids stereotypes about class and region by showing that the girl who has everything, living in one of the town’s nicest houses, is more disturbed by her father’s death than the awkward coal miner’s son from the mountain who is at the center of town gossip after his mother’s strange disappearance. The father who can't raise his son and the mother who abandoned them are not portrayed as entirely neglectful, for they left Woodrow with a love of learning and a spirit that responds sensitively to people, poetry, and the mysteries of life. Details from American popular culture of the 1950s—radio, television, comics, movies—are woven into the story as Gypsy and Woodrow learn that to enjoy life, they must forgive their parents whose “pain was bigger than their love."

Tina L. Hanlon teaches English in southwestern Virginia at Ferrum College and the Hollins University Summer Graduate Program in Children’s Literature. A co-director of the web site AppLit, she loves to write about folktales and fantasy literature for children.


Note that many wonderful Appalachian books for children and young adults have been published since this article appeared in The Five Owls. Links in this article are to other AppLit pages, including study guides, on particular authors or types of stories. For more details on books and folktales mentioned in this article, see these AppLit bibliographies:

Appalachian Fiction for Children and Young Adults

Appalachian Folktales in Children's Literature and Collections for All Ages

Bibliography of Dramas and Tales by R. Rex Stephenson

Bibliography of Works by and about Richard Chase

Books by George Ella Lyon

Realistic Appalachian Picture Books

Sociological Threads Within the Quilt of Appalachian Children’s Literature: A Survey of Historical Fiction

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